The next seven days will see every conference in the throes of college-hockey playoffs. The zealotry becomes all-consuming for the partisans of any teams left playing in March and April. The emotion of the early Spring is hard to explain to the uninitiated. College-hockey playoffs are something unique.
The post-season in intercollegiate hockey at the NCAA Division I level is unlike anything else. It suffers from neither the exclusion of the College Football Playoff nor the dilution of the Final-Four tournament. A tournament whose design necessarily excludes at least one of the victors of its dominant conferences never can capture the imagination of a nationwide fanbase. A field of 68 teams and apportioned asymmetric advantages of byes render entry into that tournament less precious and its allotted paths unequitable. College hockey strikes the balance.
Conference tournaments matter in college hockey. No, not just the conferences that the media prefers, not just the most powerful unified cadre of programs. Every conference tournament matters. Additionally, those invited to the national tournament represent roughly the top quartile of the sport. The ultimate Frozen-Four champion is a legitimate national champion because each team in that tournament must traverse as similar a path as college hockey’s current constitution will allow. This is why college hockey’s playoffs gain unparalleled international attention.
College hockey is cosmopolitan. No, this writer is not talking about the cocktails that you threw back with Carrie before Red Hot Hockeys I and II in Manhattan. Our sport is international in a way that few others are. American talent dots rosters. Canadians have remained mainstays on the rosters of the best teams since Murray Armstrong and Ned Harkness penned sweet, sweet symphonies off of the riffs of their frontmen from North of the Border.
European talent from nations such as Finland and Sweden has contributed to deep playoff runs. Russians are now trickling into the ranks of programs young and old. Coach Schafer recently accepted the commitment to Cornell of the first Chinese-born NHL draft pick. Neither college football nor college basketball can boast of equivalent breadth and depth of buy-in from such a globally sprawling audience. This still fails to explain the rollercoaster of emotions that college-hockey fans will experience in the coming weeks.
Why should the ride of college hockey’s March and April come with approved harnesses? Well, that question is quite elementary, fellow thrill-seekers. Analogy is an instrument. Proportionality gives it reason.
Perhaps inevitably, sports in the collegiate ranks take cues from their professional counterparts. Hockey is no different. How many teams make the Stanley Cup Playoffs? How many teams make the Frozen Four First Round? Conveniently and symmetrically, the answer to both questions is 16. This is one of the many reasons that this contributor believes the current format of the national tournament is the closest to ideal possible at this time.
The same number of teams enters the ultimate stage of each season to claim the sport’s highest prizes. The answer to why college hockey has the most feverish sprint toward tournament hardware herein lies. Now, the denizens of Motor City must double fist cephalopods before they let the octopi fly because it takes 16 wins to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup. It takes just four wins to lift the oaken prize as champion of the Frozen Four.
Each victory from the Frozen Four First Round to the Final carries with it the weight of four wins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, teams arrive in the First Round after as many as three weeks of playoff hockey. What of the meaningful conference tournaments that unfold before John Buccigross reads 16 names on a late March morning?
It takes 12 wins to claim either the Campbell Bowl or the Prince of Wales Trophy as a conference champion in the NHL. It typically takes four wins to decorate a program’s trophy case with a Lamoriello Trophy or Whitelaw Cup. Atlantic Hockey follows the same structure, but does not name its top prize.
Meanwhile, on either side of the four-win norm are the WCHA and B1G. The former requires five wins to get the hotel miniature of the Broadmoor Trophy. The latter effectively requires only two wins to earn the B1G Championship (no team has won from the first round yet). So, each win in a conference tournament moves college-hockey fans by roughly two and a half to six times as much as a win en route to the NHL’s conference hardware sways professional fans.
This writer for simplicity will assume the four-win paradigm that applies for a plurality of men’s conferences and three of the four women’s conferences in college hockey. This all explains why college-hockey fans experience the best and worst of times during the months of March and April. It is a simple product of scale.
The events of a conference tournament in college hockey are weighted by a factor of three relative to their professional analogs. The incidents of the national tournament are fourfold as impactful as those of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despair and elation rapidly succeed and continuously oscillate like no other time in sports.
Each minor penalty feels like a major and more. Each save prevents the ruin of four goals allowed. Each breakaway against looms as damnation while racing the other way it promises salvation. Each winner buckles twine with quadruple moment. Each sentence is a paragraph in a program’s annals.
This is why college hockey has the best post-season.
It is not the fact that college hockey first recognized a national champion nine years before the Montreal Canadiens were founded. Nor is it the fact that the Whitelaw Cup was awarded six times before the NHL first expanded. It is the fact that everything, every split second, shift, call, and scheme scrawled on a whiteboard, tilts a season’s balance.
This is why college-hockey fans live the best post-season.
College-hockey fans are blessed this time of year. May your blessings not feel as curses. See you at the rink.